The last second of the arena clock ticked away and the buzzer sounded in Atlanta. The game was over but Dwane Casey wasn’t ready to leave the hardwood floor. For the third time in a trying season, coach Casey’s Toronto Raptors have been the victims of bad officiating on the game’s final play. Casey stormed out to the middle of the court, yelling at the referees, his arms locked in questioning extension. Of course, there was no reversal by the officials. In the media scrum, Casey spoke candidly about the league’s repeated mistakes, knowing that his comments would be met with a fine from the league office. In that moment Casey spoke not just for the team but for the whole fan base. He gave voice to the frustrations of an organization that always seems to be dealt a bad hand. This wasn’t an impulsive rant, it was a calculated and honest statement made with full knowledge of the consequences (in this case $25,000). It was a strong show of leadership.
Casey hasn’t backed down since arriving in Toronto two years ago. A tenured NBA coach with a championship ring (won as an assistant with Dallas in ’09), Casey has brought professionalism and credibility to a formerly rudderless Raptors team. One of his first moves as head coach was to establish the “Pound The Rock” philosophy – an ethos of grinding every day to improve. The players, a motley crew of youngsters, journeymen and disillusioned veterans, responded. The Raptors are not a contender but the collective effort they show in every game has warmed the usually cold and cynical hearts of Toronto sport fans.
Now, with general manager Bryan Colangelo having pulled the trigger on a trade to bring star forward Rudy Gay to the T dot, there is real pressure to win. Casey couldn’t be happier about the expectations; he’s been a winner and a worker for his whole life and he’s making sure to imprint that personality on the franchise. When I met coach Casey after practice recently, I noticed one Raptors player who stayed in the gym long after his teammates had left for the showers. It was Alan Anderson, a 30-year old who has made stops all over the league and in Europe. In Toronto, Anderson has been granted an opportunity based entirely on merit. Dwane Casey rewards effort.
I walked with Casey to a secluded area of the empty Air Canada Centre (otherwise known as “The Hangar”) and asked the coach about the journey that has led him to Toronto. Casey is well-spoken and has a calming presence that gives you confidence in yourself, like a good grade school teacher. It’s hard not to respect a man who has the patience to maintain his cool while surrounded by microphones every day. After only a brief conversation, I felt like I was ready to fight on the frontlines for coach. In the gym, Anderson continued to fire off jump shots and curse his misses.
Growing up in Morganfield, Kentucky, what was your introduction to basketball?
My neighbours were Larry Johnson who went to Kentucky and his older brother Tom got a scholarship to Pepperdine university. I saw Tom go to college and get a free education when I was 7 or 8 years old and that was my awakening to what basketball could do for you. I said, ‘Hey, I want to be like Tom and Larry.’ In our little small country town in Kentucky, not a lot of people were going to college. Larry was the first player from our town to go to the University of Kentucky and I followed him there.
What defined your game as a high school and college player?
My hustle. I was a decent shooter in high school but I got more done with defense and scrappiness than anything else. In college I was the point guard, but all I was allowed to do was run the show and play defense. We won a National Championship at Kentucky. I was never a scorer but I was a playmaker and the captain of that team. My job was to be a leader and set the tone for everyone else.
You went at (former All-American and NBA player) Kyle Macy in practice, right?
Every day. We had battles. He was such a great shooter – I couldn’t stop him and he had trouble stopping me because I was a lot quicker back then. That’s what I remember about college, the great practices we had. There were twelve of the best basketball players from all over the country on our roster at Kentucky so sometimes our practices would be more competitive than the games.
How did you get your start in coaching?
When I was a senior, my coach Joe Hall asked me if I had thought about what I wanted to after college. I told him I didn’t know. He said, ‘Humana corporation, in Louisville wants to interview you, they want to hire you.’ I did the interview, then came back and saw coach Hall. I told him, ‘Coach, I just don’t know if I want to get into the hospital administration.’ He suggested that I consider staying at Kentucky to be a grad assistant and that’s what I did. I got into grad school for business administration and began coaching. At Kentucky, we had some of the top recruits in the country. We had Sam Bowie, then Mel Turpin. Sam Bowie actually ended up living with me. I took him under my wing, got him acclimated to Lexington, got him over freshman homesickness. We became great friends and are still friends to this day. We almost had (Hall of Famer) Ralph Sampson in that class too. The jet was on the runway in Lexington, ready to go sign him but he changed his mind at the last minute to Virginia. We could have had the Tri-Towers.
Can you explain how good Sam Bowie was to the people who only know him as ‘The Guy Taken Over Michael Jordan’ ?
First of all, he was one of the best shooting big men in basketball. Great hands, could shoot the outside shot, great passing, great basketball IQ. The only thing Sam didn’t have at the time was strength. Everybody today says they would take Michael Jordan, but Michael Jordan back then wasn’t the best player of all-time. Portland had Clyde Drexler and didn’t need a shooting guard, they needed a big. So they took Sam. It sounds like they made a huge mistake but anyone would have made that choice under the same circumstances.
You spent time coaching the Japanese national team. What did you gain from that experience?
Well, it was a different experience – the living, the food. Some of my best friends now are from the time I spent in Japan, not being able to speak the language. That was such a great education for me culturally and basketball-wise, studying under Pete Newell and coaching the national team there. It was like going to graduate school for basketball, being able to pick the brain of a legendary coach every day.
What have you learned about Toronto, since living here, that you didn’t know before?
How great a basketball city it is. This is one of the top sports cities in the NBA. Fans here are very knowledgeable and you don’t know that coming here a couple of nights as a visiting team. Being here, you realize that the writers, the media know the game well. The organization here is first class but the fans, for not having the success over the years, are the most loyal I’ve been around. That’s why I tell the players, ‘You give a heck of an effort and the fans will come.’ They deserve an effort out of us because they’ve stayed true all these years.
Why do you think so many players are wary of coming to play here?
Some players just don’t like being in another country. They have a fear of the tax implications, which is not true. You can pay just as much in taxes playing in California. People worry about the weather, even though you have the same weather here that they get in Chicago and New York.
When did you first see (Raptors rookie guard) Terrence Ross?
I saw him practice at University of Washington during the lockout. I live in Seattle during the offseason so I went to a few of their practices. I saw this active, very bouncy, shooting wing player. I e-mailed Bryan Colangelo and management already had him on the radar. I’ve loved Terrence from the first time I saw him work.
You worked as an assistant for the Dallas Mavericks, who very much value analytics in their game strategy. What’s the influence of statistics on your coaching here?
It gives you a back stop more than anything else. I trust my basketball eyes. Those instincts will fail you every once in a while and numbers can help support a decision. You can’t got strictly on numbers. Numbers don’t read chemistry, talent level, switches or pressure. You have to have a balance.
You were an assistant on the Seattle Supersonics during the Gary Payton/Grunge heyday. What would it mean for Seattle to get an NBA team back?
Like Toronto, Seattle has some great fans. I remember being there in the ’90s, when we were averaging 45-50 wins a year and it was the loudest building, the most rabid fans that you could find. If that comes to fruition it will be very exciting for that city and the league.
I remember being angry when Minnesota fired you in the middle of the season, way back in ’07. It seemed like you had that team performing above their talent level. As a coach, is it difficult to have things out of your control, to know that at any moment you can be made into a scapegoat for management?
It’s what we sign up for. It’s a lot easier to fire a coach than it is to change fifteen contracts. You’re going to get fired eventually unless you win a championship. It seems like eons ago being in Minnesota. We had it going, we were 20-20 at the time, right there in the playoff hunt but they made a decision to go their way and I’m sure that they had their reasons. I know we were doing things right, we were playing defense. There’s different reasons behind every decision – maybe some people like certain colours or whatever it is but it’s part of the business.
Did you view this move, coming from a championship team in Dallas to a building one in Toronto, as a challenge?
I love the challenge. It’s fun to see guys improve but in the end it’s about winning. Coming from a championship team to a building team, it’s a different approach but you know that going in. In Dallas you could skip over the smaller teaching points. Here, you know you have young players and not grizzled veterans so you can’t skip a letter of the alphabet, you need to teach the fundamentals from A-Z.
You’re one of the most stylish coaches in the league. Do you dress for occasion? Does Madison Square Garden get a certain look and etcetera?
[laughs] No, no, I mostly go with what’s clean. I try to represent the team. I make sure to look halfway decent so that I don’t embarrass the organization or my family. [laughs]